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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted: June 4, 2008 04:52 PM

Barack Obama - The First Jewish Presidential Nominee


I'm here in Sweden, where it's light at 11PM and at 4AM. That's a cheap metaphor for the illumination that so many of us feel at this particular moment. But I'll take it.

Among my many reactions to Senator Obama's securing the Democratic nomination is that this should be a moment of great and cumulative joy for American Jews, who have for so long been at the fraught, ragged and dangerous edge of social justice in America.

We should feel a great sense of pride in this triumph. And, yes, ownership, too -- in the best possible way, something created by participation and instrumentality. After all, Jews have been the great American catalysts for change. Not just in the way we have fought for it, but in the way that our own successes here birthed the narrative imagination that led in no small way to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Senator Obama spoke last night.

We are the single immigrant group that has done the most, in the small, large way that we do, to open and change the American mind. The vast migration of Jews that left, in Irving Howe's famous title and phrase, The World of Our Fathers, arrived to find themselves much-loathed and scorned in the land of opportunity, where the streets were allegedly paved with gold. Who needed Henry Ford? Eastern European Jews were even discriminated against by their earlier-arrived German cousins.

But we studied and clawed and created and clowned our way into the American center -- or closer to it, anyone, than anyone had dreamed - and by doing so earned the confidence of an open but skeptical people. We even invented the American center; a Russian Jew wrote "God Bless America". And Irving Berlin's other triumphs of harmonic assimilation, "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" are the gentile anthems to gemütlichkeit.

Obama is the heir to this. He is the beneficiary of every Jewish battle against quotas, every fight against a closed American culture, against intolerance and the brutal reductionism of stereotypes. And he shares with us the existential questions of assimilation, identity, and the gift and pain of the outsider.

As the Democratic nominee he stands on the shoulders of activist Jews who have struggled for social change, who were at the vanguard of the labor movement, the minimum wage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, every single wave of progressivity that took this burdened but boundless country forward, away from its wounds.

His journey has been the ultimate Jewish one, the child of an immigrant father who loved learning, who struggled with his heritage and then came to embrace it. And, of course, he went to law school and achieved one of the Jewish mother's iconic (if a Jewish mother can be described with a Christian metaphor) kvells of nachas: "My son the lawyer." Not only that, he did it at Harvard, and went on to teach Constitutional law, making him the closest America offers to the Talmudic scholars who devoted themselves to wresting (and wrestling) the truth out of the midrash. Text and context matter desperately to him, like they do to us.

This is the framework, theatrical, political, social, in which I see the nomination of Barack Obama -- as a secular epiphany that every Jew should look at with a rush of satisfaction. He is truly the first Jewish presidential nominee we've ever had. (And let me qualify that by saying "of a major party" before the Legion of Historical Accuracy gets on my case).

My description, of course, is a gloss on Toni Morrison, who famously described Bill Clinton as the first Black president. But it turns out she meant that in very constrained context: "People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp."

When I describe Senator Obama as the first Jewish candidate, I see that less as a political commentary and more as an interpretative understanding. Yet we're not feeling the swell of pride for one of our own that we should, and that's a great loss.

We have missed the message because we are Jews who are hardwired to survive in dangerous world where our worst doubts and suspicion are re-confirmed and re-constituted by a history of breaking glass and sirens. I think it was Art Spiegelman who said that his father told him to always sleep with a suitcase packed. So we have listened to the wrong voices, tuned into the wrong frequencies. And it doesn't take much pandering to make us worry about Reverend Wright, to question Senator Obama's commitment to Israel, to acknowledge the nonsense that Hamas wants him elected.

We can get beyond those lies. But what's more upsetting is that American Jews question his visceral understanding of the Jewish experience in America, a cholent of Jewish anxiety, Jewish ambiguity, Jewish self-examination.

But we should not. And must not . When you see Senator Obama in the tradition that I do, such doubt becomes impossibility. He has lived the Jewish experience through his own parallel one. He is a metaphor for our suffering and survival. And he doesn't need to tell us about his Jewish camp counselor or his discovery of Mr. Roth's Portnoy for that to come alive.

There are pundits who say that the election will come down to Florida, and that the Jews there might actually be dispositive. Go know. When you consider that it was American Jews of the past who made candidate Obama possible, and that it is American Jews of today who might actually make President Obama possible -- or not -- the fear and irony are something worthy of Isaac Singer or Saul Bellow. Or Sholem Aleichem: Yenta goes from matchmaker to kingmaker.

In his famous letter to the Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, in Newport Rhode Island, George Washington describes his vision of religious and emotional security -- for Jews, and by extension, for all of us. Now that an honorary Jew has claimed his place in history, Washington's words of such magnificent modesty speak to us with fresh power and meaning. Indeed, they remind us, in a haunting symmetrical augury, of what Roosevelt said about the debilitating nature of fear in his first inaugural address.

Senator Obama's mission can be no more clearly described than what Washington wrote to a handful of Jewish immigrants in 1790. And any Jew in 2008 who doubts or questions his ability to continue, and expand, that compact is making a tragic mistake:

"May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."


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